Alienware 55 OLED Gaming Monitor (AW5520QF) review: Epic gaming display, but epic price doesn't add up
Every now and then I review a product which both beguiles and befuddles me. The Alienware 55 OLED Gaming Monitor has been bedeviling me in that way since it landed in the office less than two weeks ago. Beguiling, because at 55 inches it's huge -- for a computer monitor, at least -- with the broad gamut, vivid colors, spectacular blacks and superfast pixel response OLED is known for. It's also a looker, in the striking Legend design system the company rolled out in early 2019. But also befuddling, because I can't make sense of it as something someone would want to buy over an alternative, like the $1,600 2019 LG C9 series, given the Alienware's $4,000 price tag. For $3,000, maybe. For $2,500, probably.
It's important to understand that nothing compares to OLED for gaming. The technology wins the image-quality trifecta of contrast (because black pixels are truly black), color gamut (a minimum of over 90% UHDA P3) and color accuracy (because of its relatively pure spectral intensities). Plus its pixels turn on and off as close to instantaneously as you can get, which minimizes ghosting. Unlike most movies, games also push the limits of color, as computer graphics actually use all those maximally saturated colors at the edges of the gamut that aren't found in nature.
From that perspective, you just want to park yourself in front of the Alienware 55 and game until you're evicted.
Why a monitor?
As a monitor, the Alienware does offer some advantages over a TV like the LG. In the absence of HDMI 2.1 support -- stick a pin in that topic, for the moment -- its DisplayPort 1.4 connection is probably the biggest difference. It delivers the bandwidth necessary to support 4K at its maximum 120Hz refresh rate rather than at the usual 60Hz. (Higher refresh rates give you more headroom for synchronizing the frame rate of a game with the display, which helps avoid artifacts.) Plus, 120Hz can also make simply viewing the screen easier on your eyes than 60Hz, depending upon how sensitive you are and what you're watching.
It also has familiar monitor perks, including four USB-A ports, two in an easily accessible location on the side. In this case, it gives you somewhere to stick your wireless dongles and devices with long cables.
Beneath the screen you'll find standard monitor controls, and it comes with a snazzy remote with two halves that snap together with magnets -- and which come apart (but don't break) when you drop it. The onscreen display's options bear more similarity to a monitor's than a TV's as well.
If you're familiar with Dell monitors, you'll recognize the Smart HDR modes -- in this case, game, movie, desktop and reference -- which report to Windows whether it can toggle its HDR settings. If you've chosen the game setting, Windows can enable it for games or wide-color gamut. If you want it for movies, you'll have to enable that setting instead.
Additionally, it has various game-type presets, such as for first-person shooter and real-time strategy games. Each visibly changes the white point and gamma of the display in order to, say, increase the brightness in shadow areas. FPS changes the display most dramatically, boosting the brightness so you can make out shadow detail.
But I frequently found myself switching among them midgame in Borderlands 3 -- to FPS when I needed shadow detail, but back to anything else afterward, because FPS made it too washed out and had a greener cast in order to boost the brightness. You won't find crosshair options; OLEDs are especially susceptible to burn in, so you wouldn't want one sitting on the screen for hours on end.
The Alienware 55 design matches the latest gaming gear from the company, such as the Area-51m laptop. Being an Alienware, naturally it has custom lighting, which you can set via the onscreen menus or when connected via USB.
The back panel comes off very easily -- it's attached with magnets -- so you can access the other two HDMI connections, DisplayPort, digital audio, two USB-A connections and an upstream USB 3.0 input.
The included base uses the standard boomerang design to fit into a desk layout, but I can't figure out how you'd use it that way. You really want to sit about 5 or 6 feet back from it, and typical text does not look good no matter how far back you sit; unsurprising, given the 0.32 pixel pitch (80 pixels per inch). For comparison, a 4K 27-inch monitor has a pixel pitch of 0.15 (160 ppi). I was skeptical at first that it would be stable enough on a single base, but it's quite sturdy. The AW55 comes also bundled with a standard VESA mount if you want to hang it on a wall.
If the monitor offered all that plus what you get with a TV like the LG C9, it would be one thing. They both support AMD FreeSync adaptive-refresh technology to automatically adjust for the differing frame rates you get in games to prevent artifacts like tearing (my testing of that still in progress). That's nice, especially if you own an Xbox One X or an AMD Radeon card.
But not for more common Nvidia cards with G-sync, which also leaves out a lot of gaming laptops. At this price, you'd expect it to support G-Sync Ultimate like the HP Omen X Emperium 65. And unfortunately, FreeSync is kind of wasted here: The only AMD GPU at the moment that can push 4K at a high frame rate or quality is the Radeon VII, which isn't very common.
In fact, G-Sync support is slated to come to LG's TVs soon, thanks to the company's rollout of HDMI 2.1 in its 2019 TVs and Nvidia's imminent firmware upgrade to 2.1 for its RTX graphics cards. While it's conceivable that Alienware would be able to upgrade its HDMI 2.0 connections to 2.1 -- something that would have to have been planned for at the outset -- it's improbable. It's more likely that the Alienware might make its way onto Nvidia's list of G-Sync-compatible monitors, which operate over DisplayPort (one of my test systems recognized it as G-Sync compatible but another didn't). But it looks like HDMI 2.1 will be the mechanism for variable refresh in upcoming consoles.
And note that it doesn't support FreeSync 2, which delivers better HDR capability than Windows 10's half-baked and annoying implementation. That's because the monitor has a wide color gamut -- 94% UHDA-P3 in my testing -- but you don't really get HDR. The monitor has such relatively low brightness, that HDR barely looks better. It's rated for a maximum of 400 nits, and that's for a window of about 3% of the screen, where normally the specification is a 10% window. Typically, as the window grows, the brightness drops, and in my testing the peak was closer to 300 nits for a 2% window, and typically about 260 nits for a 10% window. It gets as low as 110 nits at full screen. (My core testing is done using Portrait Displays' Calman 5 Ultimate and an X-Rite i1Display Pro.)
According to Alienware, it's purposefully engineered in a way that makes it very hard to hit 400 nits in order to minimize the possibility of burn-in, since game interfaces have persistent elements that can sink in after a while. But in contrast, a good OLED TV can do at least 500 nits for that 10% window, and even a big IPS gaming display like HP's 65-inch Omen X Emperium does 1,000 nits.
That means there's minimal difference between playing games or watching TV and movies in HDR or not-HDR. Like most low-brightness HDR monitors, Windows compresses the entire tonal range in order to hit the brightest elements without blowing them out (unlike a TV, which is always brighter in HDR). But HDR in games like Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice or in ray-traced games like Metro Exodus tend to expand upward into the highlights, because bright lights and reflections deliver more of a visceral impact than expanded midtones.
It just feels like the Alienware 55 has shipped either too late or too early: A year ago, it would have seemed more amazing for the money, and a year from now it would probably have offered more for the money, like a better OLED panel and HDMI 2.1.
Correction, 7:50 a.m. PT: You can change the lighting via software when it's connected via USB.